Research Makes Your Setting Real

One of the most important qualities of great fiction is its ability to draw you into the story so deeply you become the characters living in that time and place. One way to create a believable fictional reality is by doing extensive background research for your book’s setting. This is true no matter what genre you write.

Historical fiction requires an author to dig deep into times and places from the past. But romantic suspense, fantasy, and sci-fi all benefit from research into the elements that compose the setting. Even contemporary set mysteries, women’s fiction, thrillers, and romances will feel more real if instead of writing tree or house, you use setting-specific terms like catalpa or clapboard bungalow.

Here are some suggested ways to research your setting:

~ Visit the Location ~

Nothing beats first-hand experience. Visiting the locale of your story is one of the best ways to absorb the unique atmosphere of the place. Even if you live in the spot you are writing about, taking time to roam the community and observe closely can add extra life to your story.

As you explore, take notes on the sensory elements around you. What colors, textures, and patterns do you see? Inhale a deep breath. What do you smell and taste? Stop moving and listen. What do you hear? Pay particular attention to surfaces. How does the ground feel under your feet? What is the atmosphere? How do light and shadow change the way things appear?

If you are writing historical fiction, be sure to visit museums and historical societies. Restorations and living history museums are a rich resource. Often, they will allow you to carefully handle artifacts or explore their archives if you ask. For contemporary writers, try to visit local eateries, stores, art events, and any specific places mentioned in your story.

If your characters interact with the setting environment in a special way, try to imitate their actions as much as possible. Do they play baseball on a local field? Try running the bases. Do they hide in an alley? Explore doing the same. Do they land their spaceship in a lagoon? Find a similar one to experience. All the while, keep your senses at a high level.

~ Talk to Residents and Experts ~

While visiting your locale, ask questions of anyone you meet. Most people will respond to general questions and perhaps add some unexpected information. You never know unless you ask. Things like the weather, the most popular places to visit, and how far is it are great conversation openers. If you say you are a writer, people are usually glad to help. Don’t forget to put their names in the acknowledgements, if they give permission.

If you can’t visit a locale in person, find a local resident or two to interview via phone or videoconferencing. Where to look? Try an area writer’s group. Fellow authors are always glad to help a compatriot. Search social media. Call local government agencies. Consult librarians and museum curators as well as colleges and universities in the area.

~ Use Maps ~

Google Maps and Google Earth are amazing resources for writers. You can search by keyword, latitude and longitude, or place names. Walk streets and find shops and homes using the Street View. Examine landscape terrain using the Satellite View.

To study changes in habitation or ecology create a timeline of satellite views. Here are directions for finding older views.

Interested in the past? Old Maps Online is an international database of map archives around the world. Or try a search on the term Interactive Maps. This will produce a listing of maps that you can manipulate in various ways.

~ Watch Videos and Documentaries ~

If traveling to your story location is difficult or impossible, the next best thing is to search out videos, movies, documentaries, photographs, and other media about your setting.

Another way to get a peek at other places is through webcams. EarthCam has links to cities and wild places all over the world. Watching over a period of time can give a feel for changing weather and light conditions as well as traffic patterns.

However, there are disadvantages to watching from afar. A major one is the lack of a total sensory experience. All these types of media are heavy on visual and auditory elements, but lack access to smell, taste, touch and more. Gather artifacts and materials you might find in that location to recreate the possible scents, textures, and tastes you might experience.

For more on incorporating sensory elements into your writing, see Editing for Sensory Language

Another problem is that what we see and hear has been filtered through the eyes and ears of the media creator or on where a webcam is focused. If possible, watch at least three or more media productions about your setting so you get as wide a viewpoint as possible.

There are also advantages. For one thing, you can stop, slow down, repeat, and review selected images and audio. Another is you can visit far flung places from the comfort of your chair.

~ Read, Read, Read ~

Don’t forget the tried-and-true way to research. Consult the writings of people who have lived in your setting or studied it intently. Diaries, letters, travelogues, research studies, and even tourist pamphlets can provide all kinds of facts and impressions you can use in describing your setting.

~ Learn More ~

For more research ideas, ways to find and evaluate sources, and choosing a method for organizing your data, see my new release Research Your Subject and Validate Your Writing.

“Please, if you write anything, whether it’s a scholarly article, a novel, a blog, or even just a post on Facebook, read this book first.”

Kathleen Buckley 5* Amazon review

Have you ever discovered something fascinating about a place you were writing about through research?

Why, How, and What Writers Should Read

~ Do you write? Are you a reader? ~

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

 Stephen King On Writing

I  Love to Read. Do You?

Reading is one of my greatest pleasures. If I had my way, I would send many hours a day immersed in a book. For this reason, being a professional writer makes perfect sense for me. To be a successful writer, I can justify my hours inside a book as a job essential.

Next time someone questions why you have books stacked from floor to ceiling, or why you are too busy reading to pay a social call, use one of these delicious excuses.

carrying books

Why Writers Should Read

  • To be inspired
  • To absorb literary language
  • To learn new words
  • To develop empathy through identification with characters who are not like you
  • To keep your brain active
  • To escape your everyday world
  • To become a better reader
  • To find writers you love.
  • To support fellow writers

books in a basketHow Writers Should Read

Okay. So now you have explained those piles of books. But how should you approach them as a writer?

  • Read for structural ideas
  • Read to discover what will excite readers
  • Read to analyze structure, character, and plot
  • Read to study the voice and pacing of different authors
  • Read to see what works and what doesn’t in storytelling
  • Read to see how theme and motif can be expressed
  • Read to discover writers who write like you do. and those who don’t
  • Read to see what writing techniques work and what ones don’t
  • Read to find comparables to use in your query



What Writers Should Readwriting books

Do you tend to read the same kinds of books all the time? Branch out and try some of these.

  • Genres and styles you write in
  • Genres and styles you don’t write in
  • Books set in places you write about
  • Books set in places you have never been
  • Nonfiction books about writing
  • Nonfiction books about self-actualization
  • Books about marketing and running a business


  • Stephen King’s On Writing – the book every writer must read




The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… Constant reading will pull you into a place… where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.

 Stephen King On Writing


What are you reading right now?

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

How Do You Choose a Book to Read?

~Does Books+Main Have the Right Idea? ~

There are a whole bunch of e-book sales listing services out there – BookbudFussy LibrarianRifleE-Reader and more. These services list books that are on sale with a short sales-pitch type blurb.

With 50 % of all romances being published independently, I use these services all the time to find new authors to read. But I never buy a book without first going to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and reading the long excerpt they post.

What is Books+Main?Zara West Books+Main Bite

However, there is a new book listing service called Books+Main that has a totally new idea. Authors post up to three quotes or excerpts or related content from their books daily along with a great photo.

When you join Books+Main as a reader you can then download their App to your phone and get a stream of “Bites” from hundreds of romance books. If you like a bite, you can heart it or leave a comment. You can also click on the author and see their books and where to buy them.

What do you think of this idea?

Would reading intriguing excerpts entice you to learn more about an author and maybe buy a book? Check out Books+Main and let me know.

Here’s a link to my Books+Main page. I’d love a follow!

How do you select books to read?

Post your thoughts and comment below.

I love to read: Why reading during NaNoWri is a bad Idea

I love to read. In fact, I don’t just love it– I am compelled to read. I read everything. If there is a newspaper in the recycle bin, I read it. If there is a cereal box on the table, I read the label. If there is a book left anywhere, I pick it up and read it. And if it is a book I want to read, I not only read it, I become immersed in it. So immersed, I don’t hear people talking to me. I don’t hear the doorbell. I don’t hear the tea kettle whistling. Yep. I love to read.

Now this can be a good thing or a bad thing. When I was growing up, I was forbidden to read in the house. My mother insisted that when I was reading, I tuned her out completely. (Well, she was right about that, though I am not sure the book was totally to blame. It might just have been normal teenage contrariness.) As a result, I just read more and in more creative ways – under the covers, in my lap at school, while pretending to watch TV, and so on.

In elementary school, I set out to read every book in the library. Since the library was small and poorly stocked, that turned out to be quite possible. It was also a wonderful introduction to the wide range of books out there. I read everything – fiction books about chickens that talked, the children’s classics, and non-fiction books about Indian crafts and to make pompoms. (I still can make those pompoms.)

I love to readWith that success under my belt, when I reached high school and could get to the public library on my own, I gave myself the goal of reading every fiction book in the library. I started at the As and actually got as far as the Hs. Robert Heinlein’s works were where I stopped my relentless pursuit because my best friend introduced me to the new acquisition rack and I had a whole new bunch of books to devour.

Now that I am a professional novelist, I still read. Reading is an essential part of writing. I read everything in my genre that I can. I read everything in genres I plan on writing in someday. And I plain just read everything that whets my interest. I read for enjoyment. I read to learn more about writing. I read to support my favorite authors. If you want to see what I read, check out my Goodreads list and my reviews. I read a new book every other day — usually.

However, not during NaNoWri. For one thing, reading consumes too much time. If I am going to get 1500 to 2000 words a day down, I don’t have time for a leisurely read at breakfast or lunch. But that’s not the main reason. The real problem about reading while fast drafting is that it pulls you out of your own story.

When I am fast drafting I am living my story. I am in the flow. I’m inside my character’s heads. I go to bed dreaming the next scene. I wake up ready to capture it. Reading someone else’s words, no matter how wonderful, no matter how enticing, interferes in the process. So as much as I hate it, I am not reading right now. Well, not much. I still read labels. I still read the newspapers my husband drapes over the armrest of the sofa. I still read e-mails and Facebook posts and even peek inside a few novels.

Because I am not perfect. I love to read…

Are you a compulsive reader too?

I’d love to here how you control your reading. Post your thoughts and comments below.

Favorite Places to Read

Where do you like to read? I’m a compulsive reader so I enjoy reading anywhere. I have been known to read while stirring the stew and in the few seconds it takes to microwave my tea. One of the reasons I like to read paperback books as opposed to e-books is that it is actually quicker to find and turn the pages in a paperback. Then again, e-books are a little more waterproof if you’re cooking. But I do think a paperback is safer when reading in the tub.

In honor of the release of Beneath the Skin, I will be posting suggested places to read  on Facebook and Twitter and this web page on a regular basis. I invite you to join in and post your favorite place to read, including a photo if you wish, in the comment section below or Tweet them to me at @zarawestauthor.

All those who comment or tweet will have their names put in a hat and a winner, chosen at random will receive an e-copy of Beneath the Skin. The winning Readers Club member will receive a basket of Beneath the Skin soap & lotion custom crafted by Laurel’s Garden. If you include a photo of Beneath the Skin in your tweet or comment, you will also get a $5 Amazon gift card.

Places to Read Beneath the Skin

In the Kitchen

Places to read - in the kitchen

In the Vineyard
Places to Read - in the vineyard
In Your Rocking Chair
Places to read - in a rocking chair
In an Apple Tree

Places to Read - in an apple tree

Don’t forget! Post your favorite place to read below or tweet it @zarawestauthor